Open Mic: John Yoo, Torture, & Christian Ethics

Yesterday I wrote about how Catholicism views the idea of torture and how a possible response to it and it’s socio-political effects can be found in the Eucharist.  That article was written because the idea of Torture has come front and center in the political discourse once more.  For those not keeping track of the current political climate concerning the previous administration, John Yoo is a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley that was given the charge by the Bush administration and the CIA to define the nature and limits of “enhanced interrogation techniques“. He along with Jay Bybee authored the famous “torture memos” which gave legal justification for the use of waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and other techniques in order to get information from suspected terrorists.

Last year, the Office of Professional Responsibility wrote a report finding the two men guilty of professional misconduct and recommended the Justice Department do a full investigation. Ealier this month, both Bybee and Yoo were officially cleared of all wrongdoing in the eyes of the Department of Justice. Further, the DOJ strongly suggested that no further investigation nor disciplinary action from the bar should be sought. Last week the Department officially closed its investigation. Yesterday, the top ethicist of the Department of Justice said that not only did Yoo and Bybee do nothing criminal, but neither did they even act unethically. (Full summary of the metanarrative of all of this can be found here.)

As would be expected in such a story: Yoo feels “vindicated“; Conservatives feel justified; Liberals feel angry. All of this recent discussion in the past few days inspired me to return to an interview from last month that Yoo gave to Jon Stewart on the Daily Show. The full, unedited interview really deserves your full viewing. Part 1 has Yoo offering a historical context to our nation’s philosophy and use of torture. Part 2 and Part 3, though, are the most fascinating as Yoo offers his justifications for his “extreme” views on Presidential powers. He also outlines these ideas much more fully in his recent book Crisis and Command.

And you know what? I think it makes sense. I think Yoo and Bybee just may be right about the Constitutional powers offered the President in times of war. The basic argument goes, as summarized by this exchange in the interview, something like this:

STEWART: This book, Crisis and Command, basically says [that] from George Washington on up, the framers wanted the Executive to have immense power in war-time; and when the Commander-in-Chief makes an executive decision based on national security, he has enormous lee-way. Is that correct?

YOO: That’s right. And this comes and goes so that in periods of peace-time the President’s should become a smaller office and that the Congress and the Supreme Court check it…. I guess my final bottom line in all this — and I’ve struggled with this throughout Crisis and Command — is that in the end, it is still good for us to have the President able to make those good decisions even at the cost of sometimes having Presidents who make the bad ones; that it’s worth it for our system to be able to have a Lincoln or an FDR, even if the price is to have someone like a Nixon. Or, in your mind a — you know — Bush; or in Republican minds, Obama, right?

This makes sense to me. I can see the presence in the Constitution of enormous powers granted to the President in times of crisis (Executive Orders, anyone?). Remember, as Yoo says, our best and most revered Presidents are those that have done radical things in times of crisis or war. Lincoln suspended the right of habeas corpus for rebels. Franklin Roosevelt put Japanese Americans in the internment camps. Washington pushed his powers to the limit during the early years of this nation as we were stabilizing ourselves after the Revolution. Heck, even the Emancipation Proclamation was issued during the Civil War under the authority and justification of these same war-time powers that Bush used to allow torture.

Therefore, I agree with Yoo’s final assessment that the Constitution does indeed grant legal powers to the President to do what Bush did. It was legal. It may have even fallen within the technical limits of being “ethical”. But I refuse to believe it was moral. It is not. The moral justification for torture is usually derived from a form of Utilitarianism that says that the suffering of another to save many is ultimately moral. This is wrong and no Christian should hold to this. Torture is immoral and despicable. Christian ethics is NOT utilitarian.

Looking at Jesus, one has to come to the conclusion that he was anything but a utilitarian in this way. He seemed to do things in the least “effective” way; and indeed, this is built within the entire ethos of the Christian faith. To achieve eternal life on our behalf, Jesus died; to find one’s life, we must lose it; to be exalted, we must humble ourselves; and to bring the most benefit to the most people, we must be more willing die and suffer violence ourselves than exert it on others. Jesus Christ did what was best to serve not the highest quantitive good but the highest qualitative Good, namely His Glory, with the knowledge that in the service of this Good, all of humanity would be served.  And sometimes, to accomplish this, he did things in a way that defied all normal logic of “effectiveness”.

Practically, Christians should therefore be more willing to serve than be served; more willing to die than kill; and more willing to be tortured than endorse torture. What does this mean on a national level? Well, this is yet one more reason why there can be no such thing as a “Christian nation”.  A nation has the God-given right to seek the security and comfort of its citizens. Christians, on the other hand, are called to cast off that security and comfort in the radical service of others. I make no claims that martyrdom and radical self-sacrifice should be national policy. But the individual Christian should never endorse or speak in favor of such a thing as torture, nor should they obey any commands of their earthly authorities requiring them to do so. The Christian should acknowledge that a government has the right and freedom to bear the sword, but the Christian does not.

I’ll end by asking you to consider these lines from Derek Webb’s song “A Love That’s Stronger Than Our Fear” from his album The Ringing Bell:

What would you do if someone put a gun to your head
and ask you to tell them a lie?
What would you say if you were pushed that way
to betray yourself to keep yourself alive?
Is life worth so much?

There’s got to be a love that’s stronger than our fear
of everything being out of control
everything being out of control

What would you do if someone would tell you the truth
but only if you torture them half to death?
Tell me since when do the means justify the ends
and you build the kingdom using the devil’s tools?
Can time be so short?

There is a day that’s been inaugurated but has not yet come;
that we can proclaim by showing that there’s a better way.

Let us show the world there is a better way.

What do you think?  Should Christians defend the use of these techniques?  If not, should they push the government to adopt the same principles?

7 thoughts on “Open Mic: John Yoo, Torture, & Christian Ethics

  1. Wow, man. You just jump right into the hard issues. There is so much in this post, I don’t know where to start.

    I appreciate your discussion of Yoo and the legality of enormous presidential powers in difficult times.

    As for torture. I’ve not heard many Christians arguing that we should be torturing people. Am I just wearing blinders?


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